“The Americans” teaches confirmation bias

The AmericansThe Americans, the 1980s Cold War spy drama from FX about two Soviet spys living as Americans in suburban Washington, DC, is the best show on television, even if not a lot of people are watching. Of course, what it is really about is life, family, and the intersection of role-play and reality to each. As Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker explains, it’s “a show about human personality as a cruel performance, even (and sometimes especially) with the people we claim to love. It’s about marriage as much as it is about politics.” In any event, on a recent episode, the FBI agent played by Noah Emmerich is asked about his backstory — three years undercover with white supremacists — by another agent.

“What did it take to fool them?”

“Telling them what they wanted to hear over and over and over again.”

“That’s it?”

“People love hearing how right they are.”

People love hearing how right they are

How right he is.

For further (related) reading:

Confirmation Bias: A CFB Twitter Accounting

Confirmation Bias 4Confirmation bias is our tendency to notice and accept that which fits within our pre-existing commitments and beliefs. If you doubt its existence, power and importance, you might look at the tweets on college football from this fall that follow (I wrote about it in the college basketball context here). Even if you don’t doubt confirmation bias, looking at these tweets is still a lot of fun. Everyone tends to think that everyone else is out to get them and their team. As Paul Simon put it in The Boxer, “…still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest….“ By inference, at least everybody seems to agree that they hate ESPN!

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What you’re vacillatin’ between

Francis Paschal

Francis Paschal

When I was a first-year law student at Duke many years ago, my Civil Procedure professor was the delightfully named J. Francis Paschal. Professor Paschal seemed to like to portray himself as a bit of a good ol’ boy, with a protruding gut, truly dreadful sports jackets, hair slicked and parted just off-center, and a drawl as thick as molasses on a cold day (if not nearly so sweet). That image could not mask a keen mind and a sharp wit. Nor did it hide his erudition — in addition to his credentials in the law, Professor Paschal had a Princeton Ph.D. too.

The good professor led his classes using the Socratic conventions of the day. A student was called upon to answer a series of penetrating and perplexing questions supposedly designed to ferret out the nuances of some legal principle or another but which, in reality, served to demonstrate to a class full of bright and full-of-themselves college graduates that they were out of the minors and into the intellectual big leagues. If we were going to compete at that level, we needed to up our collective game considerably.

One day fairly early in the first semester Professor Paschal called on a woman in the row ahead of me (who I shall kindly refer to — using a pseudonym since she is now a Deputy Attorney General — as “Frieda Clancy”) and asked a typically impossible question. SInce Frieda was a friend, I happened to know that her extremely difficult predicament was actually utterly impossible because she was not prepared for class.  In fact, it wasn’t just that she wasn’t fully prepared (meaning that she had read the required case, all the cases cited therein, the case comments, casebook notes and citations, relevent hornbook and law review materials and anything else we could think of that might be relevant). She wasn’t prepared at all. She hadn’t even read the case at issue.

This was not likely to turn out well. Continue reading

Beguiled By Narrative

Thomas Hoepker (Magnum Photos)

Thomas Hoepker (Magnum Photos)

The photograph above, taken at the Brooklyn waterfront on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 by German photographer Thomas Hoepker, is now one of the iconic images of that horrible day. In fact, the Observer New Review (London) republished it in 2011 as the 9/11 photograph. In Hoepker’s words, he saw “an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant — flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background.” By his reckoning, even though he had paused but for a moment and didn’t speak to anyone in the picture, Hoepker was concerned that the people in the photo “were not stirred” by the events at the World Trade Center — they “didn’t seem to care.” Hoepker published many images from that day, but he withheld this picture for over four years because, in his view, it “did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day.”

In 2006, the image was finally published in David Friend’s book, Watching the World Change. Frank Rich wrote a 9.11 fifth anniversary column in The New York Times, framed by the photo, which he called “shocking.” Continue reading

Hiding in Plain Sight

Phil SmithOver a career that has spanned four decades so far, concertgoers have routinely paid a lot of money to hear Phil Smith play the trumpet. The long-time principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic retired this summer after 36 years in the orchestra. In his first professional audition, while still a student, he won a place in the Chicago Symphony. While still in his 20s, Phil came to New York following just his second professional audition. According to New Yorker magazine, “For the past thirty-six years, Smith has presided over orchestral trumpet playing, with a resonant, clarion sound and a reputation for never missing a note.” He has been, inarguably, one of the world’s great performers. Continue reading

A Commitment to Truth

InvestmentBeliefssm2 (2)It seems to me, after a good deal of thought, reflection and research, that we have so much difficulty dealing with behavioral and cognitive bias in large measure because we build our belief structures precisely backwards. There’s nothing revelatory in that conclusion, obviously, because it is exactly what confirmation bias is all about. We like to think that we make (at least relatively) objective decisions based upon the best available evidence. But the truth is that we are ideological through-and-through and thus tend to make our “decisions” first — based upon our pre-conceived notions — and then backfill to add some supportive reasoning (which need not be very good to be seen as convincing).

I have been working on an infographic to try to illustrate the issue* and have come up with the following.

Commitment Hierarchy

The goal should be to build from the ground up — beginning with facts, working to conclusions and so on. Beliefs are interpretations of one’s conclusions about the facts. If more fervently held, they rise to the level of conviction and perhaps to the highest pyramid level, whereby one makes a major commitment to a particular cause, approach or ideology. These commitments are the things by which we tend to be defined.  Continue reading

Laugh or Cry?

Our biases make it really hard to see things clearly.

Our biases make it really hard to see things clearly.

Ezra Klein (formerly of The Washington Post) has a new venture (Vox) dedicated to what he calls “explanatory journalism” and which offers consistently progressive “explanations” for various policies by a talented but ideologically pure staff. Klein’s big introductory think piece cites research (already familiar to regular readers here) showing that people understand the world in ways that suit their preexisting beliefs and ideological commitments. Thus in controlled experiments both conservatives and liberals systematically misread the facts in a way that confirms their biases.

Interestingly, if unsurprisingly, while Klein concedes the universality of the problem in theory, all of his examples point out the biased stupidity of his political opponents. Paul Krugman – a terrific economist but an often insufferable progressive shill – sees Klein’s bid and ups the ante, exhibiting classic bias blindness: “the lived experience is that this effect is not, in fact, symmetric between liberals and conservatives.” In other words, his “lived experience” trumps the research evidence (science at work!). In Krugman’s view, conservatives are simply much stupider than liberals because reality skews liberal. He even goes so far as to deny that there are examples where liberals engage in the “overwhelming rejection of something that shouldn’t even be in dispute.” If what is being expressed is perceived to be the unvarnished truth, bias can’t be part of the equation.

Yale’s Dan Kahan, who was Klein’s primary interviewee in the referenced piece and an author of much of the relevant research, found Krugman’s view “amazingly funny,” in part because the research is so clear. Biased reasoning is in fact ideologically symmetrical. Continue reading

We Was Robbed

Worst Call EverOn June 21, 1932, after Max Schmeling lost his heavyweight boxing title to Jack Sharkey on a controversial split-decision, his manager Joe Jacobs famously intoned, “We was robbed.” It’s a conviction that hits home with every fan of a losing team and thus every sports fan a lot of the time. It’s also a point of view that has received a surprising amount of academic interest and study (note, for example, this famous 1954 paper arising out of a Dartmouth v. Princeton football game).

Traditional economic theory insists that we humans are rational actors making rational decisions amidst uncertainty in order to maximize our marginal utility. As if. We are remarkably crazy a lot of the time.

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We Are Less Than Rational

Investment Belief #3: We aren’t nearly as rational as we assume

InvestmentBeliefssm2 (2)Traditional economic theory insists that we humans are rational actors making rational decisions amidst uncertainty in order to maximize our marginal utility. Sometimes we even try to believe it.  But we aren’t nearly as rational as we tend to assume. We frequently delude ourselves and are readily manipulated – a fact that the advertising industry is eager to exploit.1

Watch Mad Men‘s Don Draper (Jon Hamm) use the emotional power of words to sell a couple of Kodak executives on himself and his firm while turning what they perceive to be a technological achievement (the “wheel”) into something much richer and more compelling – the “carousel.”

Those Kodak guys will hire Draper, of course, but their decision-making will hardly be rational. Homo economicus is thus a myth. But, of course, we already knew that. Even young and inexperienced investors can recognize that after just a brief exposure to the real world markets. The “rational man” is as non-existent as the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and (perhaps) moderate Republicans.  Yet the idea that we’re essentially rational creatures is a very seductive myth, especially as and when we relate the concept to ourselves (few lose money preying on another’s ego). We love to think that we’re rational actors carefully examining and weighing the available evidence in order to reach the best possible conclusions.

Oh that it were so. If we aren’t really careful, we will remain deluded that we see things as they really are. The truth is that we see things the way we really are. I frequently note that investing successfully is very difficult. And so it is. But the reasons why that is so go well beyond the technical aspects of investing. Sometimes it is retaining honesty, lucidity and simplicity – seeing what is really there – that is what’s so hard. Continue reading

Hope for the Future

HopeFutureNearly every high school choral organization routinely performs anthems based upon some version of a familiar trope. The piece is designed to be trendy musically, even while being more than a bit late (when I was in school, each had an obligatory “hard rock” section). Meanwhile, the lyrics are an earnest and perhaps cloying ode to the ability of the young to create a better and brighter tomorrow. One such title from my school days was in fact “Hope for the Future.”

Unfortunately, the promise always seems better than the execution.

Despite the enormous (and most often negative) impact that our behavioral and cognitive biases have on our thinking and decision-making, the prevailing view is that we can’t do very much about them. In his famous 1974 Cal Tech commencement address, the great physicist Richard Feynman emphasized the importance of getting the real scoop about things, but lamented how hard it can be to accomplish.  “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Even Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate, the world’s leading authority on this subject and probably the world’s greatest psychologist, has concluded that we can’t do much to help ourselves in this regard.

But today — maybe — there might just be a tiny glimmer of hope (for the future). Continue reading